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Lesson 3

Types of Bible Stories

This lesson looks at some of the most popular narrative genres found in the Bible — hero stories, epics, comic and tragic tales, and parables.

Why We Need Heroes

As a human race, we demand images of greatness. Heroes satisfy that demand. But heroes do not simply reflect our values and beliefs; they also reconcile us to human failings and limitations.

Hero Stories

Life — everyday life as we live it — doesn’t provide ready-made heroes. Life supplies the raw materials from which heroes are shaped.

Selected by nature or circumstance, a hero is heightened, silhouetted, molded. He or she is an interpretation of a human being — a distillation of qualities we hope we might have, such as strength, wisdom, cunning, steadfastness, loyalty, and compassion. Look at the virtues that heroes possess and you can learn a lot about the culture from which they sprang. Heroes always embody the idealized values of the people who created them.

This is not to say that heroes are perfect. Although they possess exemplary qualities, they invariably have failings, too. They are flawed. They are us — only exaggerated.

The Bible abounds in heroes. Here are some of the most famous hero stories in the Bible (and the pages you will find them on in The Harper Collins Study Bible):

  • The story of Abraham: Genesis 12-24 (pages 20-37)
  • The story of Daniel: Daniel 1-6 (pages 1304-1317)
  • The story of Gideon: Judges 3-6 (pages 378-384)
  • The story of Ruth (pages 410-415)
  • The story of Esther (pages 738-748)
  • David and Goliath: 1 Samuel 17 (pages 443-446)
  • The story of Jesus (a selection): Mark 8-11 (pages 1932-1941)

Each of these heroes is unique, yet collectively they share something in common. Each hero embodies a quality (or qualities) that biblical storytellers deem worthwhile. As you read the hero stories of the Bible, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What values does this hero embody?
  2. What conflicts does this hero face?
  3. According to this hero’s story, what is the goal of life?

Take a moment and look at the story of Esther (pages 738-748 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Read the pages and jot down your answers to the questions asked above. When you are finished, continue with the lesson.

  • What values does this hero embody?
    Esther, the heroine of the story, possesses beauty, bravery, and selfless devotion to her nation and religion. In a way, the story is a classic rags-to-riches tale of an orphan girl who becomes a queen. Esther owes her ascent to her beauty — her story almost plays like a glamorous Hollywood movie. What distinguishes this heroine from a beauty queen, however, is her courage in saving her nation. Esther risks her life on behalf of her people.
  • What conflicts does this hero face?
    Esther’s story portrays the difficulty of Jewish religious culture existing within a larger pagan culture. This conflict becomes deadly when the Jews are threatened with extinction.
  • According to this hero’s story, what is the goal of life?
    When she resists Haman’s unjust plan for genocide, Esther lays her life on the line for the principle of justice. The story suggests that devotion to justice, when pursued with devotion to God, leads to success.

Among the many hero stories of the Bible, you’ll find one major variation on the model of heroic narrative. This is a hallmark genre of the Bible — the epic.

The Epic Canvas

“The supreme role of epic lies in its capacity to focus a society’s self-awareness in a more comprehensive way than is possible in a single drama, or even in a novel on any scale less than War and Peace.” –Hugh Richmond, The Christian Revolutionary: John Milton

The Bible Epic

Do you like a “long read?” Then you’ll love the epics of the Bible. They’re sprawling, encyclopedic tales — “the story of all things,” as noted literary critic Northrop Frye once called them.

While an epic is built around a hero who performs a great feat — a Moses or David — it is really the panoramic story of a nation. In the Bible’s epics, the hero’s journey is intertwined with the destiny of the nation as a whole, its conflicts, wars, and dominion. Events occur on a cosmic stage that is alive with supernatural events. Unlike a typical hero story, the scope is enormous.

There are two unmistakable epics in the Bible — the Exodus from Egypt and the story of David. The following readings encapsulate the cores of both epics (page numbers given for The Harper Collins Study Bible):

  • Exodus:
    Exodus 1-20 (pages 79-117), Numbers 10-17 (pages 218-234), Numbers 20-24 (pages 238-249), Deuteronomy 32-34 (pages 318-325)
  • David:
    1 Samuel 16-17 (pages 442-446), 2 Samuel 5-19 (pages 473-498)

Along with these two full-fledged epics, you’ll find epic-like stories throughout the Bible, particularly in Genesis and Old Testament historical chronicles. While these are better approached as hero stories, they do share the wide scope of epics.

In a sense, you could argue that the Bible as a whole is an epic. The book encompasses the history of all people and nations, from the creation of the world to the end of time. True to epic form, supernatural characters and marvelous events occur throughout the Bible.

We’ll examine this question more closely in Lesson 8. For now, let’s move from the grand sweep of the Bible’s epics to the more human scale of comedy and tragedy.

Two Roads to Wisdom

“The comic and the tragic heroes alike ‘learn by suffering,’ albeit suffering in comedy takes the form of humiliation, disappointment or chagrin, instead of death. There is a comic road to wisdom, as well as a tragic road.” — Wylie Sypher, Comedy

Comedy and Tragedy

You have good days and bad days. This is the rhythm of life. It is also the rhythm of literature, where comedy and tragedy form a complementary whole.

Comedy and tragedy are pregeneric forms; they occur within other genres. Hero stories and epics can be either comic or tragic. For example, the hero story of David is a tragedy, while the hero story of Ruth is a comedy. You could argue that the Bible as a whole is comic, culminating in the “happy ending” of Revelation 21-22 (pages 2335-2337 in The Harper Collins Study Bible).

To say a Bible story is comic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s amusing. It means it has what might be called a “U-shaped” plot structure. A comic tale begins with the hero in prosperity and events veer toward tragedy, but ultimately everything is resolved in a happy ending.

Along with happy endings, comedies feature characters that transform from bad to good, surprise plot twists, reunions, miracles, sudden reversals of fortune, and rescues from disaster.

The story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) features a classic U-shaped structure. It is an archetypal rags-to-riches story, a staple of comic narrative. The youngest of seven brothers, Joseph begins as his father Jacob’s favorite child (prosperity), but he is sold into slavery and ends up in an Egyptian prison (tragedy).

Unexpectedly — thanks to his ability to interpret dreams — he rises to a position of power second only to the Pharaoh. When Joseph’s brothers stand before him in Egypt to request food, they do not even recognize the younger brother whom they tormented. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and moves his entire family to Egypt (prosperity restored). It is a grand family reunion and a happy ending.

Among the other notable comic narratives in the Bible are:

  • Noah and the flood: Genesis 6-9 (pages 12-16)
  • The story of Ruth (pages 410-415)
  • The story of Esther (pages 738-748)
  • The “framing story” of Job: Job 1-2 (pages 751-753) and Job 42 (pages 795-796)
  • The “passion story” of Jesus: John 18-21 (pages 2047-2055)

Like comedy, tragedy begins with the hero in prosperity, but it ends unhappily, in catastrophe, usually death. In tragedy, the hero is afflicted with a tragic flaw, makes a grievous error in judgment that leads to his or her downfall, and becomes gradually isolated from society. There are two undisputed tragedies in the Bible:

  • The tragedy of Samson: Judges 13-16 (pages 392-398)
  • The tragedy of Saul: 1 Samuel 8-31 (pages 427-465) [Note: The tragic decline of Saul is played alongside the ascent of David. The chapters dealing exclusively with Saul are: 8-11, 13, 15-16, 18, 24, 26, 28, 31.]

Let’s look at the story of Samson as a sample of biblical tragedy. Samson begins as all tragic heroes do — in an exalted position from which he must fall. His miraculous birth and superhuman strength make him “most likely to succeed,” but he has a tragic flaw . . . well, many tragic flaws: self-indulgence, a weak will, and spiritual recklessness. His error in judgment occurs when he foolishly reveals to Delilah the source of his strength. In the end, Samson suffers and dies weak and blind, toppling a Philistine temple on himself and his victims.

With a basic understanding of biblical comedy and tragedy in hand, now we will look at a much different literary genre: the parable.

The Human Side of the Parables

“What is of special interest in the parables of Jesus is . . . that these stories are so human and realistic. It is not only human life that is observed but nature as well, or man in nature. The world is real. Time is real. The parables give us a kind of humanness and actuality.” –Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric

Biblical Parables

At once simple and profound, the parables are examples of masterful storytelling at its most stripped down. Clearly oral in tradition, they are the stories that Jesus spoke to teach his followers as recorded in the Gospels.

If you are unfamiliar with the parables, read one or two now to get a sense of their style. Here is where you will find them in the New Testament:

  • Matthew clustered the parables in Chapter 13 (pages 1881-1884 in The Harper Collins Study Bible), and he scattered some particularly famous parables elsewhere: The parable of the lost sheep in 18:10-14 (pages 1981), the laborers in the vineyard in 20:1-16 (pages 1893-1894), and two eschatological parables in 25:1-30 (pages 1904-1905).
  • Mark’s most famous parables appear in 4:1-34 (pages 1923-1925).
  • Luke’s parables appear on 8:4-18 (pages 1972-1973), 10:25-37 (page 1980), 12:13-21 (page 1984), 14:15-24 (pages 1988-1989), Chapters 15 and 16 (pages 1989-1992), and 18:1-14 (page 1994).

Having sampled a few parables, what can we generalize about them?

The parables are folk literature, simple enough on the surface to be understood even by young children. They are brief, they tend to focus on a single event, and they feature a small cast of characters, usually archetypal figures such as the rich man, the master and his servants, the prodigal son. As literature, they feature realistic characters in everyday settings — no supernatural events or miracles occur in a parable.

They are also religious in nature, specifically Christian. The parables require a symbolic or allegorical level of meaning to make them significant. The very word parable means “to throw alongside,” suggesting that double meaning is an essential mark of the parables.

Many details in the parables stand for something else. For example, the parable of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13:1-9) is too simple in itself to interest us; when we realize that the different types of soil symbolize different hearers of Jesus’ words, the tale takes on deeper meaning.

Moving On

Narrative dominates the Bible. It is a book filled with stories, and we have discussed some of its most popular literary genres: the epic, the hero tale, comedy, and tragedy. Next time we will focus on the second most dominant genre of the Bible, biblical poetry.

Assignment: Types of Bible Stories

Read Chapters 3 and 8 and the Appendix entitled “The Allegorical Nature of the Parables,” in How to Read the Bible as Literature:

Types of Bible stories: pages 75-86

Parables: pages 139-153 and 199-203

 

4 responses to “Lesson 3

  1. ANGELA ANINAKWAH

    September 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

    This is really insightful and creative. I teach an English Class in a Bible Institute, and i am definitely going to share this with them. Just last week we were discussing this topic.
    I have not gone through the whole material but would want to comment that there are both fictional and non-fictional literature and The Bible even though very creative, as seen in these lessons, is not fiction as in other creative works of art. It is truly the inspired work of God.

     
  2. Roy Lind

    January 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

    All of this was very interesting and helpful;additionally, it is very plainly written and so easy to understand and grasp
    Thank you very much

     
  3. WANGARI MWAI

    January 27, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    THIS IS GREAT. I wish we had more information like this that will help us interest our literature students to the teachings of the bible through teaching the bible as a literary text. Rev. Prof. Wangari Mwai

     
  4. Larry Davidson Jr

    August 25, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Great article

     

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